There’s an adage that says “the clothes make the man.” Of course we know that that’s not the case. However, I think a brief look at the symbolism of some of the bishop’s vestments and accoutrements provide some important insights regarding the role of the bishop as servant of the Gospel.
First, there’s the bishop’s ring, which symbolizes his marriage to his particular Church or diocese. He stands in the person of Christ the Bridegroom in relation to His bride, the Church. In totally giving of himself for the People of God entrusted to him, the bishop is called to imitate Christ Himself. One calls to mind St. Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 5: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25).
Related to the ring is the pectoral cross that the bishop wears around his neck, to keep ever before him that he is the vicar of our crucified Lord. But why a pectoral cross and not a crucifix? I was told by a doctoral student in Rome that the reason for this is not because the bishop is a Protestant (!), but because the bishop himself provides the corpus. No servant is greater than his master. The bishop is called in a preeminently priestly way to be willing to lay down his life for his flock, for his bride, in union with our High Priest, Christ Himself.
Then there is the crozier, or staff, that the bishop carries. This clearly identifies the bishop as a shepherd-king, as one who has been given charge of the flock. An interesting aspect of the crozier is brought out in the phrase “by hook or by crook,” which is a fancy way of saying “one way or another.” A shepherd uses the curved end to collar and bring straying sheep back to the flock. However, he uses the other end to prod the sheep in the right direction. Similarly, the bishop is responsible for everyone in his geographic area, including fallen-away Catholics and those not yet in the fold.
But gathering the people into unity is just part of the process; he also has to challenge and exhort all of us to continue on our pilgrimage of faith and thus keep us focused on and moving toward our heavenly prize.
The miter is another item that points to the kingly nature or headship of the bishop in the local Church. The miter is the crown-like head covering worn by the bishop, especially during liturgical celebrations. Yet, despite its royal appearance and symbolism, the miter is removed by the bishop when he offers prayer on behalf of the community. This not only fulfills the biblical mandate (“Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head” 1 Cor. 11:4) but also shows that all temporal power, even in the Church, must bow before the throne of Almighty God.
The last item I’d like to mention is the bishop’s chair, which represents the bishop’s teaching authority. The bishop’s church is called a cathedral, which comes from the Latin cathedra, for chair. The church celebrates the unusual-sounding feast of the Chair of Peter, which recognizes the unique teaching authority vested in Peter’s successors, particularly when they speak ex cathedra, or “from the chair.” Typically in cathedrals the bishop’s chair is found on the northern or Gospel side of the Church, again reflecting the bishop’s particular charism as an authentic herald of the Gospel.
The clothes do not make the man. Bishops, like the rest of us, struggle in living out their personal vocations in Christ. But the clothes do remind all of us of the awesome gift of apostolic succession in our midst, through which the very life of Christ is passed on to us.
For more on the bishop’s role in the Church, I heartily recommend a collection of very readable essays by outstanding American bishops (George, Chaput, Burke, Myers, Bruskewitz, etc.) on various aspects of the bishop’s vocation. This collection, entitled Servants of the Gospel, is available through Emmaus Road Publishing.